September 30, 2012
On Fri., Sept. 21 in Beinecke plaza, the midday sun glinted brilliantly on the spangles of a ribbon that read “ROTC at Yale.” A group of 50 underclassmen in crisp uniforms sat lined up neatly in the front two rows. For these students, it was a big day—their official welcome to the Reserve Officers Training Corps. For Yale, though, it was a historic one.
The ROTC program, which dates back to the First World War, provides scholarships for students to go to college, and, over the course of the same four years, also trains them to become military officers. This year’s ROTC class marks Yale’s first since since 1972, when the program was discontinued at the suggestion of a faculty committee’s vote. ROTC had become unpopular in the wake of vehement opposition to the Vietnam War. The program returns now following the 2010 repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a policy that prevented openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual people from serving in the military. With this discriminatory policy overturned, Yale has reaccepted the ROTC program—but only under certain conditions.
ROTC participants get full credit for Yale classes, of course, but they don’t get additional course credits for being midshipmen or cadets. The specific classes required by the ROTC program do not count towards graduation from Yale College—a reflection of the school’s concern that the ROTC courses do not meet the University’s rigorous academic standards. When the program was phased out in 1970, ROTC classes could no longer earn students course credit. The 2011 faculty committee that advised the school to bring back the program held strong on this one issue, stating that the same concerns that existed in 1970 about the academic rigor of these courses persist today.
Every week, ROTC participants have responsibilities beyond their Yale College coursework: Navy ROTC (NROTC) cadets train Monday mornings and attend classes twice a week; Air Force ROTC (AFROTC) cadets train twice a week and take weekly classes. All ROTC students have to take a lab, which, for freshmen, entails learning the structure and leadership of their respective institutions.
That said, the cadets don’t complain. “Classwork-wise, it’s not too time-consuming,” said John Keisling, BR ’16, of AFROTC. Perhaps they see the same sort of value in their training as their presiding military officials do—a less quantifiable one. “I want people to understand that the job is about professionalism; the job is about dignity, respect, integrity, your character,” said Colonel Scott E. Manning, Commander of the Yale AFROTC unit.
Students refer to instructors as “sir” and “ma’am.” The teaching of tradition is crucial, as is the development of trust. “Every day we reinforce the concept of not lying, cheating, or stealing,” Lieutenant Daniel Kohnen, a naval science instructor and career advisor to the NROTC students, explained. In their capacity as representatives for the United States military, he said, ROTC officers teach students to “maintain the highest moral integrity.”
Officers also teach students to follow a strict dress code. According to Colonel Manning, part of the curriculum for freshmen in AFROTC is an instruction in military customs and courtesies—including appearance. The girls in the program are allowed to have short hair, or long hair pulled back off their collars; boys must crop their hair so that ears are entirely bare. Military law says that “cross-dressing” is not allowed: boys may not choose to have long hair, even if they pull it back off
Those military customs and courtesies evidently draw stark gender boundaries—as does the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” “The day after the repeal of DADT, I called [Defense] Secretary Robert Gates,” President of Yale Richard Levin, GRD ’74, told the Herald in October 2011, “I told him Yale would very much like to explore reinstating ROTC.” But to say that Yale welcomed back a program that fully supports LGBT rights is not to tell the whole story. It seems the acronym’s last letter—the “T”—was left out of the repeal: transgender people are still barred from serving in the military. Service members may find themselves discharged for undergoing genital surgery or identifying with a different gender from that which they were assigned at birth. Everyone is prohibited from wearing clothing not considered “gender-appropriate.”
Gabe Murchison, DC ’14, objects to the presence on campus of an organization whose policy obstructs the University’s officially stated values. “Yale’s Equal Opportunity Statement asserts that Yale does not discriminate on the basis of gender identity or gender expression,” he explained in an email. “By sponsoring Naval and Air Force ROTC, Yale aids and abets just that kind of discrimination: it contributes resources that can only be used by students with normative gender identities and gender expressions.”
Questioned on the exclusion of transgender and gender-nonconforming students, Dean of Yale College Mary Miller expressed that the military has already shown a flexibility to change their policies, but in the meantime compared ROTC to one of Yale’s many restrictive programs: “Just because you want to row with the Varsity Crew, we’re not going to let you. There are many parts of the program at Yale College that demonstrate a certain skill, a certain commitment,” she said in an interview. The question of how gender expression could qualify as a skill or commitment, however, remains—as do the freshmen cadets and midshipmen at Yale this year.
In their time at Yale, these students will learn not only ROTC values, but also Yale values. For Dean Miller, this is the critical point: “The kind of students they will come into contact with, the diverse cultural experiences that are available on a campus like ours, are incredibly important to build diverse and diversely thinking individuals at the top of military leadership,” she said. Colonel Manning stressed that members of the Navy and Air Force engage directly with world issues, and the education they receive as undergraduates is likely to shape the way they handle diplomatic, peacekeeping, and combat situations. “I think that a student that’s doing ROTC at Yale is going to be able to critically think and analyze the problems of the world faster, and offer better solutions,” he said.
The ROTC participants seem eager to accept this challenge of a Yale education. Renee Vogel, PC ’16, says that though she must carry herself with a certain dignity as part of AFROTC, she has room to explore intellectually, thanks to a military act allowing cadets to espouse individual viewpoints in an academic setting. “When I’m in class and I’m wearing a uniform, it has to be known that [what I say is] my opinion, and it’s in no way representative of the Air Force,” she said.
“It is so important to get the liberal arts foundation with your engineering degree,” said Beau Birdsall, SY ’16, a midshipman and platoon commander for the Yale NROTC unit. He thinks his engineering degree, enhanced by its liberal arts context, will give him the foundation “to communicate and to think through things in terms of society, culture, what people need.”
Their restrictive schedules, however, are impeding them from rising fully to the challenge of taking as many liberal arts classes as they evidently want to. “As scholarship students there are a lot of classes we have to take,” said Jordan Bravin, SM ’16, a midshipman. He is excited to study the more flexible fields of the liberal arts, but, he said, “that’ll come later.” And it will come at a price: because of his intention to major in the humanities, the Navy provides Bravin with the third and lowest tier of tuition assistance.
Right now, though their academic schedules are restricted, these students say they are learning from campus life at Yale. Among the four ROTC participants I interviewed, extracurriculars they’d joined included Varsity track, Glee Club, the Tory Party of the YPU, and work at Sterling Memorial Library. Furthermore, many of their friends are non-ROTC students. “We’re just students like them, we’re not robots,” said Brisdall.
But when they walk around campus, especially in their uniforms, these ROTC students clearly stand out. In their shining uniforms, they hold themselves to commitments that reach beyond those of a student, because ultimately, they are not merely students. They are also midshipmen and cadets, always. And so the girls wear their hair bobbed or pulled up from their collars, and the boys wear their hair cropped behind their ears. They conform to the ROTC standards to which they are held, however discriminatory they may currently be. And like the rest of the students at Yale, these ROTC students are here to learn. “It has come into particularly high relief,” Dean Miller reflected, “how important it is to have military leaders that have been challenged by the kind of faculty, the kind of students they will come into contact with [here
A. Grace Steig is a sophomore in Yale College. She is a copy editor for Broad Recognition.
The text of this article first appeared in The Yale Herald (Sept. 28, 2012) and is reprinted with permission.